Piper Kerman made a mistake when she was 24.
Two years earlier, as a recent college graduate living in Northampton, Massachusetts, Kerman fell in with people whose lifestyles seemed exciting—as much because one of them ran money and smuggled narcotics for a West African drug lord as in spite of that fact. And when she agreed to help the woman who’d brought her in to that circle usher a suitcase full of undeclared cash from Chicago to Brussels, she made what she describes now as her "biggest mistake."
It took time for the mistake to catch up with her. Four years after she brought the suitcase to Europe, U.S. Customs officers knocked on her doors, with an indictment on charges of drug smuggling and money laundering. The wheels of justice turned slowly, and it took nearly 10 years from the day Kerman carried the bag through the airport for her to begin a 15-month sentence in a federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut.
If this story doesn’t sound like it ends with her giving an interview about the new comedy series based on her experiences that debuts on Netflix July 11, well, that’s understandable. But Kerman—whose 2011 memoir of her experience, Orange Is The New Black: My Year In A Woman’s Prison, is the basis for the Jenji Kohan-created Netflix original series of the same name—has found that everyone’s biggest mistakes often define them: For her, she’s been able to channel those experiences in a way that’s been useful to both herself and, she hopes, to others.
The main character in Netflix’s Orange Is The New Black is Piper Chapman (played by Taylor Schilling), not Piper Kerman—and that helps Kerman keep a little bit of perspective. "Piper Chapman is very different from me," Kerman says. "Her story line, particularly. When you get to see it, you will get to see that very quickly; her story diverges from mine. I’ve made plenty of mistakes, but she really makes some doozies."
Still, that doesn’t mean watching the show—with its mix of dramatic departures from her book, fictionalized situations, and elements that come directly from her own experience—isn’t strange for Kerman. "There are certainly some moments of cognitive dissonance for me, watching certain things that are clearly drawn from the book. They’re sometimes played for humor, but they really pull it off, and I think that’s amazing."
A best-seller might by read by hundreds of thousands of people, but even a modestly watched television series will reach millions. And when your story, like Kerman’s, is one that you hope illustrates a part of the world that most people are unfamiliar with, having that wide audience is extremely important.
"One of the reasons I wrote the book is that I wanted folks to be willing to step into the world of prisons and prisoners, and perhaps identify with people in prison in a way that they maybe didn’t think was possible," Kerman says. "That’s really exciting for me, as someone who cares about these stories—even if the stories are not mine."
In fact, while Kerman’s book obviously serves as the show’s inspiration—and she herself is a consultant on the show—she’s not the only woman who’s been in jail who the show’s creators have spoken with to create a wide range of characters. "I answer questions from the writers, and from the production team, who are really trying to create an environment that is very realistic," she says. "And the writer’s room consults with many other folks. I know they brought in some folks—there’s a transsexual character, for example—who’ve actually been incarcerated to talk about their experiences." Kerman doesn’t bristle at the notion of her story becoming their story, and the ensemble nature of a television program (in addition to Schilling, the show also stars Laura Prepon, Kate Mulgrew, and Natasha Lyonne) allows for those stories to breathe in a way that’s difficult in a memoir or even a movie.
"One thing that’s cool about having it adapted into a series, as opposed to, say, a feature film, is that the show’s creators have the ability to tell lots and lots of stories. It’s not just about a singular protagonist," Kerman explains. "The show really allows a tremendous exploration of different characters, backstories, and also the trajectory that a two-hour film never could do. I think it’s just a perfect medium."
"It’s a strange experience to have your biggest mistake become this very defining thing in your life, but that’s actually reflective of how the system works, too," Kerman says—it’s just that, in her case, being defined by this experience has come with benefits that she recognizes are not privileges most enjoy. "People are often not able to move forward and have second chances and accomplish the things that they’re capable of," she says. "I feel very, very fortunate that there have been so many positive outcomes from my own experience. I feel very grateful for that."
And, for Kerman, that comes with a responsibility to tell stories that humanize the people who are defined by their mistakes in ways that didn’t involve Netflix knocking on their door. And, she says, her own creative process has been largely defined by her attempt to do that. "I think to bring some of the themes or the issues to life that are so important, when you’re thinking about this enormous prison-industrial complex, or mass incarceration, you really have to cut to the human stories," she says. "You have to tell them with great clarity, and that is certainly what I tried to accomplish in writing the book, and in any sort of future projects. These issues have to be brought to light with the human story. The statistics are sort of numbing. People are, on some level, used to the wash of data—it’s the stories that really bring these things to life."
There have been plenty of stories on television that depict people going through the criminal justice system: It’s just that those are generally stories told from the prosecution’s perspective, and Law & Order doesn’t always have room to be sympathetic to most of its defendants—especially the guilty ones.
But being sympathetic to your characters also means acknowledging that they’re fully realized people—and that means the experiences that they’re having as a result of their biggest mistakes might not always be tragic. That’s important for a show about people in prison that’s also a comedy. "The thing that’s amazing about the show is the writers’ choices to use humor to examine the world that they’ve created, and ride the razor’s edge," Kerman says. "There are very, very serious scenes in this show that are in the book—scenes around mental health and substance abuse, and family and guilt and friendship—heavy, very serious things. But they’re leavened with—or in some cases, examined with—humor. Real life is both serious and also sometimes funny, and humor is something that people use to survive prison."
Ultimately, while Kerman’s story is certainly unlikely—it is a story, and stories are how we understand the world. And if the show helps people understand the world that she found herself in 10 years after she brought that suitcase to Belgium, she’ll consider it a success.
"When I started to write the book, I hoped that people would come away after reading it with a different idea about who’s in prison, what happened to them there, and why they ended up there in the first place," she says. "I think that if you want to change hearts and minds, mass media is essential. It can’t be done otherwise. A really compelling show that tells stories—lots of them—is a really important way to let people understand issues that are really complex. Conventional wisdom tells us one thing, but the stories tell us something different. "
[Images Courtesy of Netflix]